“How long do you think you’ll stay, Mum?” Alan asked, hoping it would be for some time.
“I really don’t know, dear. I want to see Lisa and spend some time with Troy and Bradley. Then I’ll let you know.” She gave him a penetrating look. “I won’t go while you need me, if that’s what you’re worried about. And your father and I will come back as soon as we can after I do go.”
Alan gave her a wry smile. “Thanks, Mum. I’m beginning to get the hang of this, but there’s a lot still to learn.”
“I know, dear. I’ve been through it myself, and I helped Lisa and Craig through it when Troy was born. You’ll get there. One thing I want to make clear, though.” She leant forward to emphasise her point to the two young men. “Lisa and Craig made you the boys’ guardian for a good reason. Your father and I are getting too old to look after young boys. We can help, but we can’t do it ourselves. You two can and will do a lot better job than your father and I could do. We might have the experience, but we don’t have the stamina.”
Alan dropped his gaze to the tabletop. He had been half-hoping that his mother would take the boys off his hands, though he felt a small wrench in his heart as he thought about that. If it had happened, he knew he’d have missed the boys.
* * *
Peter answered the phone. “Hello?”
“Hi, I’m Olivia Gates, Sam’s mum. Is this Bradley’s dad?”
Peter grimaced before steeling himself to explain what had happened. “No, I’m his Uncle Peter.” Peter glanced around and then moved into the nearby bedroom to reduce the chance that the boys would overhear him. “Bradley’s parents were involved in a car accident a couple of weeks ago. His mother’s still in hospital, and his father didn’t make it. Alan and I are looking after the boys until their mum gets out of hospital.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. We got Alan’s message yesterday, but we weren’t able to ring until late, and we didn’t think you’d appreciate a call after ten.”
“That’s okay. Bradley hasn’t stopped pestering us to have Sam over, so I’m really glad you’ve called.”
“Well, about that, Bill and I are really reluctant to let Sam stay somewhere when we’ve never met the parents…er…or whoever will be looking after him.”
“I understand, and that makes sense. I’m sorry, Alan and I didn’t think of that. We haven’t been looking after the boys for that long, and it never occurred to us; though, in hindsight, it should’ve. Maybe we can arrange for a playdate for the boys? Bradley’s got one with another friend on Sunday, so Saturday or sometime next week would suit us.”
“During the week is out of the question, unfortunately. Sam’s in child care for a reason: both of us are working.”
“Sorry, I should have realised. Bradley won’t be back after the end of this week—at least, not until there’s a permanent vacancy. Alan’s taking indefinite leave to look after him.”
“Oh, that’s not good. Sam has been talking nonstop about Bradley all week, and I don’t think he’ll be happy when we tell him Bradley won’t be at child care next week. Let’s try to meet up on Saturday, then, and we’ll see how the boys get along.”
They agreed to meet at a small park not far away. As he hung up, Peter realised that spare time for the weekend was disappearing fast as activities with the boys were scheduled, and they still hadn’t done anything about organising for Troy to spend some time with one of his friends.
* * *
“Peter, I’ll do that. You get the boys ready for school and child care,” Rosalie said when she found Peter stripping Bradley’s bed the next morning.
“Thank you!” Peter said, stepping back. “It’s been getting to be quite a chore. He’s been doing this a lot.”
Rosalie frowned while she methodically removed the wet sheets. “Why don’t I ask Lisa when I see her if he was doing this before the…” She paused and bowed her head for a moment.
Peter rushed ahead to try to distract Alan’s mother from reflecting on the accident. “That would be great if you could, but Alan’s got a doctor’s appointment for Bradley on Monday because of the bedwetting, so if you don’t, that’s okay.”
Rosalie smiled at him. “That’s good. You and Alan are doing a great job with the boys.”
Peter paused, took a deep breath, and then did something Alan had said they shouldn’t do. “There’s something I need to tell you. We’re keeping it from Lisa because we don’t want her distracted from getting better as soon as possible, but Craig’s parents have been pushing to take the boys off our hands.”
“Why are they doing that?” Rosalie bundled up the sheets and started to carry them to the laundry.
Peter walked with her. “Because they don’t want their grandsons being raised by a gay couple.”
“They don’t?” Rosalie’s rhetorical question had a hard edge. “We’ll see about that.”
“Do you think it mightn’t be a bad idea for them to take the boys?” Peter asked, not sure what answer he wanted to hear.
Rosalie stopped and fixed Peter with a stern gaze. “Don’t put yourself down. You and Alan are doing a good job from what I’ve seen so far, and I don’t see that changing. If the Lyntons wanted to take the boys for the right reasons, then maybe something could be done, but Lisa wants you and Alan to have the boys. The boys are not a prize in a game. Lisa thinks they’re better off being with you, and I’m trusting her judgement. If you want any help fending off Craig’s parents, just let me know.” She smiled. “Now, how about you go back to looking after the kids, and I’ll get the washing done? Don’t worry, Peter, it’s all going to work out.”
Peter nodded and headed to the kitchen, where the boys were having breakfast, not sure if he was happy or disappointed with Alan’s mother’s comments.
* * *
Rosalie Thrush laid the flowers she’d bought on Craig’s fresh grave and then stepped back to silently reflect on her memories of her son-in-law. Her vision blurred as she remembered their wedding and the birth of her two grandsons, in particular. There was no doubt in her mind that Craig had made Lisa very happy and that he had given much to their family.
Several minutes later, dabbing at her eyes, she headed back to the car. It was time to see her daughter.
* * *
Bob paused his stroll through the workshop when he heard Alan whistling as he worked. “You’re in a cheerful mood, Alan. Are you that happy that today’s your last day?”
Alan grinned. “No, that’s not it. My mum arrived home yesterday, and that’s taken a huge weight off my shoulders. She won’t say how long she’ll be staying, but her just being there is going to make life that much easier for us.”
“I thought you said she wasn’t due to show up until late next week?”
“Yeah, that’s what she told me when I spoke to her, but there was a change of plans. One of the local kids drove for four hours to take her to where she could catch a small plane to Mt. Isa and from there make her way back to Brisbane and Melbourne. Needless to say, Peter and I were speechless when she knocked on the door last night.”
“Peter’s the boyfriend, right?”
“Yep. Didn’t I mention his name before?” Alan wracked his memory, but he wasn’t sure that he had.
Bob chuckled. “You may have, but I don’t recall it if you did. After a few years of keeping him secret, you certainly haven’t said a lot about him. Do you think you’d be free to have lunch with Merry and me? She’s got some stuff to give you before you go, and it’ll be a good chance for her to interrogate you.”
Alan laughed. “Did she ask you to ask me?”
Bob shrugged. “No, but she made it clear she’d like to know more. You know her; she never learnt that curiosity killed the cat.”
“Okay, I think I’ll be able to join you. I should be finished here early afternoon, and that leaves the rest of the day to do a general cleanup.”
“Good. Come into the office when you’re ready.” Bob glanced over where the apprentice was working. “But before, I’d prefer you to do a quick check on Dave’s work and let me know what he needs help with. I want to try to get him up to speed as quickly as possible.”
“Sure thing, Bob.” Alan returned his attention to the bracket in front of him. “Time I got back to work, I guess, if you want me to look over Dave’s stuff, too.”
* * *
Rosalie smiled as she put her handbag on the table next to the hospital bed and sat on the only chair in the room. “Hello, Lisa. I came as soon as I could.”
Lisa had numerous bandages covering parts of her body, but her face was no longer swollen, and the bruises had almost disappeared. “I’m so glad you’re here. Tell me, how are the boys?”
Rosalie reached out to take Lisa’s hand. “They’re good. I had a long chat with Alan last night, asking how they were coping, and the boys seem fine. Peter and Alan are concerned about Bradley because he’s been wetting the bed a lot, but that’s about it.”
Lisa started to chuckle but cut it short with a short gasp of pain. “He was wetting the bed a lot before all this happened. Craig…Craig and I were talking about what to do.”
“Alan’s taking him to see a doctor next week. He was worried the bedwetting was occurring because Bradley may be missing his mum and dad. He didn’t know that Bradley had been doing it earlier.”
“He could have asked!” Lisa winced but pressed on. “I’m talking to them each night. Why didn’t he ask me?”
Rosalie had been trying to decide if she should say anything about Craig’s parents wanting to take the boys from Alan and Peter, but seeing Lisa’s pain and sensing the anguish of separation that underpinned it, she realised that Alan was right. Lisa didn’t need the stress that would come from knowing about the conflict.
“He’s trying to spare you, dear, and it’s not that big a deal. Alan’s doing a good job looking after Bradley and Troy, and he was just concerned. No need for you to worry about it.”
“Do they miss me?”
Rosalie swallowed her first response, which was to say: of course, they did. She thought it would sound too trite. “They talk to you each night, don’t they?”
“They do, but it’s not the same. I can’t see them. I can’t hold them. I can’t…” Tears started falling down her face.
Rosalie stood up and carefully hugged her daughter. She knew that Lisa needed to let her feelings out.
* * *
Merideth surprised and embarrassed Alan when she stepped forward and gave him a hug. “Take care, and look after those boys, Alan. Let us know when you’re ready to come back to work.” She released him and took a step back before raising a warning finger. “But it had better not be for a few months. Those boys need you, and you’re not to short-change them.”
Alan knew he was going red. “Thanks, Merry. We’ll see you next weekend, but, yeah, I’m going to concentrate on just being there for Troy and Bradley. Er…can I ring you if I need advice?”
She laughed. “Of course, but didn’t you say your mum was home?”
Alan made a face. “She is, but she’s not promising to stick around. She’s told me that the boys are my responsibility, and she’s not going to take over.”
“And is she wrong? The boys are your responsibility, aren’t they?”
Alan nodded. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not nervous.”
Merideth chuckled. “The word is terrified, Alan. There’s nothing more terrifying than learning that a small human being is your responsibility and that they are totally dependent on you. At least you don’t have to worry about breast- or bottle-feeding and changing nappies.”
Alan grinned. “Yeah, I’m thankful for small mercies. I just have to worry about tantrums and the boys refusing to eat when what I cook isn’t what they’re used to.”
“You’ll be fine. Don’t make rules when it’s not important, and don’t budge when it is. Now, go.” Merideth gave him a small shove in the direction of the door. “You’ve got a new job to do, and you don’t want to be late.”
Alan laughed and let himself be ushered out of the office. He collected his gear and moved to his car. It was only after he was seated and about to head off that he checked his last pay slip. His eyes opened wide, and he almost headed back into the office to confirm that there hadn’t been a mistake. It was the extra small slip of paper in the envelope that stopped him. The short written note signed by both Merideth and Bob confirmed that he had been given a bonus. It wasn’t a huge amount, but it was much more than Alan had any reason to expect.
The farewell from Merideth and the earlier gruff goodbye from Bob had put him in a good mood, and he was whistling when he pulled into the carpark of the Little Bell Childcare Centre.
A few minutes later, he was in the Silver Bell room, looking around for Bradley. He stopped in shock when he saw Bradley racing towards him.
“Look at what I’ve got, Uncle Alan!” Bradley’s clothes were covered in handmade badges.
“Where did you get these from?” Alan asked as his gaze sought one of the staff members in the room. He noticed that several of the other kids in the room had a badge on, but only Bradley had multiple ones.
“Everyone made them, and they all made one for me because it’s my last day here.” Bradley frowned. “Do I have to go? Can’t I stay, Uncle Alan? I promise I’ll be good.”
Alan knelt down and gave Bradley a hug. “I know you’ve been good, but I’m sorry, you can’t stay. Someone else will be here next week, and we have to wait before it’s your turn again. Hopefully you’ll be back one day.”
Bradley pouted and ran off.
“Bradley!” Alan called.
“It’s okay, Mr. Thrush. He promised he would say goodbye to Sam before he left, and I think that’s all he’s doing,” one of the staff members said. Smiling, she pointed across the room. “See?”
Alan watched as Bradley and another boy spoke to each other.
“Did the kids really make badges for Bradley?”
“They did. We had badge-making as the activity for today, but when Sam said he was making an extra one for Bradley, almost everyone else said they’d do the same.” She smiled at the memory. “It was one of those moments that reminds me why I love this job.”
Bradley and Sam ran outside to the play area. Alan quickly followed. “Bradley, it’s time to go!”
“Can I play for a bit longer?. Please?”
“I’m sorry, but no. We have to pick up Troy. You’ll see Sam again tomorrow, so say goodbye, and let’s go.”
Bradley hung his head for a moment and then looked up and waved to the other boy. “Bye, Sam!”
Alan escorted the reluctant boy out of the building, and they were soon on their way to the school.
“When can I go back?” Bradley asked.
“I don’t know. We’ve got your name down, but we have to wait until they have room for you.”
“I want to go back!”
“And you will. Just not yet.”
“I want to go back!”
Alan sighed and then remembered something Tracey had said. “Would you like a chocolate frog or an apple, Bradley?”
“What word did you leave out?”
Alan watched in the rear-vision mirror and couldn’t help smiling at Bradley’s expression as he thought about the question.
Alan pulled over to the side of the road for a moment so he could reach into the bag next to him. He had intended the snacks to be for after they had picked up Troy, but it was clear that Bradley needed some food immediately. Tracey had told me that the boys became grumpy at that time of day if they hadn’t had something to eat.
The pickup at the school went smoothly until they were about to leave.
Alan turned and saw Troy’s teacher approaching.
“Ms. Frowley, is there something wrong?”
She glanced at the boys. “Is it possible to have a quick, quiet word?”
Alan smiled down at Troy and Bradley. “Why don’t you two go and play for a bit while I talk to Ms. Frowley.”
“Yippee!” Troy dropped his school bag, and he and his brother raced to the jungle gym.
Alan picked up Troy’s bag before turning to Ms. Frowley. “What’s up?”
She made a face. “The subject of Father’s Day came up today, and Troy became very upset. He said it was because he didn’t have a dad anymore, and he wouldn’t be able to make a Father’s Day present. This is the first time he’s shown any signs of distress, and he calmed down fairly quickly, but I thought you should know straightaway.”
“Thanks for that.” Alan looked at the boys at play. “I think Bradley’s been having problems, but I hadn’t noticed Troy having any issues with missing his parents. What did you do to calm him down?”
“I suggested he make a present for you, instead. He was very happy about that idea.”
Alan’s eyes went wide as he stared at her. “Me?”
Ms. Frowley smiled. “I wasn’t sure if he was upset because of his dad or because he didn’t think he’d be allowed to make a present, which is why I’m mentioning it, but he settled down immediately once I made my suggestion. I suspect he’s starting to think of you as his new dad.”
Alan’s mouth dropped open as his gaze snapped to where the boys were playing. His mind was awhirl with mixed emotions, and he didn’t know what to think.
* * *
Keidan and Steve were nonplussed when the door wasn’t opened by either Peter or Alan but by an older woman who looked vaguely familiar.
“Hi!” She paused, giving the two guys a onceover before smiling at Steve. “I remember you from Alan’s twenty-first. I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten your name. I’m Alan’s mum.”
Steve smiled back as he flicked his long blond hair out of his eyes. “Hello, Mrs. Thrush. I’m Steve, and this is my boyfriend, Keidan. He was at Alan’s birthday party, too, but that was a few years ago. I’m surprised you remembered me!”
Peter appeared behind Rosalie and laughed. “You’re pretty hard to forget, Steve. Come on in.” He turned to Alan’s mum. “Steve and Keidan have decided to come and visit on Friday nights, and the boys seem to enjoy having them over. We’re making it a Fun Friday, and the boys are allowed to stay up past their usual bed time.”
Rosalie nodded while Steve and Keidan moved into the house. “I think that’s an excellent idea, and I think it’s wonderful that your friends are helping out.”
Keidan grinned. “Steve wouldn’t let us stay home. I think he’s a frustrated father-to-be.”
Steve gave his boyfriend a mock-haughty stare. “Moi? You’re the one who won’t watch Friday night footy without your old drinking buddies.” He smiled at Rosalie. “We’ve brought some things for the boys, too.”
As if on cue, Troy and Bradley raced out of the living room.
“Steve! Come with me. Let’s play the Lego games again.” Bradley grabbed Steve’s hand.
Steve chuckled. “Maybe later, but we’ve brought a few other things for you to do. Now where’s Alan. Do you know where he’s hiding?”
“He’s watching TV,” Bradley said. “What have you got for me?”
“Have you got anything for me, too?” Troy asked.
Steve winked. “Yes, we’ve got something for both of you. You’ll find out soon enough what they are, but I think it should be a surprise.”
Keidan grinned at Peter and Rosalie. “I think we should get this over and done with before we get lynched.”
Rosalie laughed. “I think you’re right.”
A minute later, Steve was in the middle of the living room with two young attendants waiting eagerly beside him. Keidan was standing off to the side, smiling as he watched his boyfriend acting as the king of the kids. Rosalie had taken one of the seats, and Peter had joined Alan on the couch.
“Can we have the surprise now?” Bradley asked.
“Can we?” Troy echoed.
Steve tapped his lips. “Well…have you been good to Uncle Alan and Uncle Peter?”
“Yes!” both boys chorused.
“In that case, I think you can have your surprises.” Steve knelt down to whisper conspiratorially. “See that big guy standing over there. If you rush over and tickle him, I think he’ll give you some presents.”
Keidan had been reaching into the bag containing the toys when he was attacked by the two boys. Not expecting to be tackled, he found himself off balance, and then, after quickly checking to make sure there was nothing in the way, allowed himself to be knocked to the ground.
“Where’s our presents...please?” Troy asked while he and his brother tickled Keidan.
Keidan laughed. “Stop tickling me and I’ll give them to you.”
Both boys stopped, but Troy jumped onto Keidan’s stomach. “Promise?”
Keidan grinned. “I promise. Now will you let me up?”
The boys allowed Keidan to regain his feet. He picked up the bag, put a hand inside, and then paused. “Ready?”
He pulled out the two Lego racer boxes. “Tada!”
While the two boys gleefully grabbed the toys, Alan turned to Steve. “You shouldn’t have done that. There’s no need to buy them toys.”
Steve raised an eyebrow. “Why not? Keidan and I are both happy to get them things, and it’s our money. They weren’t that expensive, and we thought the boys would love them. There is a problem, however.”
Alan frowned. “What problem?”
Steve grinned. “I don’t think the boys will be able to make them by themselves. Keidan and I have done our part. It’s up to you and Peter to help the boys put them together.” He looked at Peter. “What do you think? Who’s going to make the better racer? You or Alan?”
Peter laughed. “Okay, you manipulative swine, you win. Come on, Alan. Let’s see if a motor mechanic knows how to make a car better than a phone salesman.”
Rosalie watched from her seat for a couple of minutes while Alan and Peter played on the floor with the boys. She then rose and moved over to the couch that Keidan and Steve had claimed. “Thank you. That was very thoughtful of you.”
Steve blushed, while Keidan shrugged. “It wasn’t that much.”
“Yes, it was. It’s not the money you spent but the enjoyment you’ve given.” She glanced back to see Peter encouraging Troy to tackle Alan to stop him from finding the piece he was looking for. “Parenting can be a chore at times, but you’re helping Alan and Peter see the joy, too. For that, I thank you.” She smiled. “Now, can I get you something? Tea, coffee, or would you prefer a beer?”
“A beer would be great, Mrs. Thrush,” Keidan said.
“Just one beer and then I’ll switch to tea. I’m the driver tonight,” Steve said.
“No problem,” Rosalie said. She was about to leave when Keidan made a sudden movement.
“I’ve just remembered!” Keidan started to dig around in the bag containing picture books, textas and pencils. He grinned in triumph when he found the camera. Turning it on, he took a quick photo of the four on the floor. The flash attracted everyone’s attention.
“What are you doing?” Peter asked.
“Taking photos. Say cheese!” Keidan replied before taking another picture.
“Yeah, but why?”
Steve grinned. “Because The Alfred is only a short distance from where I work. We’ve got an old digital-picture frame we’re not using, so we’re going to load it with photos, and I’ll take it to Lisa the next time I’m there.”
Peter and Alan were stunned and didn’t know what to say. Rosalie knew. She stepped forward and gave first Keidan and then Steve a kiss. “Thank you so very, very much.”
Copyright Notice - Copyright © December 2016 by Graeme.
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form -- physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise -- without the author's express permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.
Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
I would like to thank C James for providing feedback on the early drafts, and rec for his invaluable editing. I would also like to thank Ricky for that crucial final review before publication.